The chronicles of Austan Goolsbee

Obama's economic advisor admits he talked about trade with Canadian officials. But he was misquoted! Except he was telling the truth!

Published March 3, 2008 4:35PM (EST)

Our latest installment in the riveting spectacle of "Economists Gone Wild": Austan Goolsbee, Barack Obama's chief economic advisor, now acknowledges that he did have a conversation discussing trade policy with Canadian government officials. But, he says, his comments were inaccurately portrayed in a memo written on the meeting.

The Associated Press has the memo. The key segment:

"Noting anxiety among many U.S. domestic audiences about the U.S. economic outlook, Goolsbee candidly acknowledged the protectionist sentiment that has emerged, particularly in the Midwest, during the primary campaign. He cautioned that this messaging should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans...

On NAFTA, Goolsbee suggested that Obama is less about fundamentally changing the agreement and more in favor of strengthening/clarifying language on labor mobility and environment and trying to establish these as more 'core' principles of the agreement."

(Goolsbee conceded that the sentence on labor mobility and the environment was "true and consistent.")

Again: It is highly unlikely that Goolsbee was authorized specifically by the Obama campaign to offer comfort and succor to Canadians worried about Obama's discouraging NAFTA words. But despite Goolsbee's claim that he was mis-memoed, his position obviously reflects reality, both for the Obama and Clinton campaigns.

This is a shame. Because the real nut of the issue, as Robert Reich, former secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, pithily explains on his own blog, is not NAFTA's purported role in the loss of manufacturing jobs in Ohio, but how, going forward, the United States can best take care of those Americans who are hurt by trade.

In Rhode Island on Saturday, Obama offered his own plain, believable words on the subject, after yet again swiping at Hillary Clinton's stance on NAFTA.

"I believe in trade, and I won't stand here and here and tell you I won't stop every job from disappearing because of globalization. But I will tell you, I will be thinking about workers and not just Wall Street when I think about trade legislation."

I think Obama meant to say "will stop," not "won't stop," but no matter, his message is clear. And it touches on the critical issue: Will the next president look out for the interests of American workers? Will he or she, as Reich suggests, push for the kinds of things that can make a real difference, such as wage insurance, health insurance, expanded unemployment benefits and job training and investment in education? Everyone in Ohio and Canada knows that the Clinton and Obama campaigns are bashing NAFTA right now for symbolic reasons. The spectacle has been uninspiring, though perhaps more embarrassing for the Obama campaign, which makes such a big deal about "change" but when the goal at hand is winning Ohio, reverts to politics as usual.

Globalization is unlikely to be rolled back, and no president will get to "opt out" of it. The question for voters in Ohio is who do they believe will be most likely to get new legislation passed that helps working-class Americans, rather than abandon them.

And as for Goolsbee? The Associated Press reported that "he said he has been surprised that such a banal and trivial meeting with a low-level consulate official has created so much controversy and resulted in such an inaccurate depiction."

Get used to it, buddy.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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2008 Elections Canada Globalization How The World Works